Skin disease studies go deep: depression/inflammation insight

A recent paper from Miller and psychiatry chair Mark Rapaport looks at clinical trials testing an anti-inflammatory drug against psoriasis, to see whether participants’ depressive symptoms improved. Read more

New insight into how brain cells die in Alzheimer's and FTD

(Epi)genetic hallucinations induced by loss of LSD1 resemble Alzheimer's. Another surprise: LSD1 aggregates in Alzheimer's brain, looking like Tau Read more

2B4: potential immune target for sepsis survival

Emory immunologists have identified a potential target for treatments aimed at reducing mortality in sepsis, an often deadly reaction to Read more

Heart

Blood vessels and cardiac muscle cells off the shelf

Tube-forming ability of purified CD31+ endothelial cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells after VEGF treatment.

Chunhui Xu’s lab in the Department of Pediatrics recently published a paper in Stem Cell Reports on the differentiation of endothelial cells, which line and maintain blood vessels. Her lab is part of the Emory-Children’s-Georgia Tech Pediatric Research Alliance. The first author was postdoc Rajneesh Jha.

This line of investigation could eventually lead to artificial blood vessels, grown with patients’ own cells or “off the shelf,” or biological/pharmaceutical treatments that promote the regeneration of damaged blood vessels. These treatments could be applied to peripheral artery disease and/or coronary artery disease.

Xu’s paper concerns the protein LGR5, part of the Wnt signaling pathway. The authors report that inhibiting LGR5 steers differentiating pluripotent stem cells toward endothelial cells and away from cardiac muscle cells. The source iPSCs were a widely used IMR90 line.

Young-sup Yoon’s lab at Emory has also been developing methods for the generation of endothelial cells via “direct reprogramming.”

Read more

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Big data with heart, for psychiatric disorders

Imagine someone undergoing treatment by a psychiatrist. How do we know the treatment is really working or should be modified?

To assess whether the patient’s condition is objectively improving, the doctor could ask him or her to take home a heart rate monitor and wear it continuously for 24 hours. An app connected to the monitor could then track how much the patient’s heart rate varies over time and how much the patient moves.

Heart rate variability can be used to monitor psychiatric disorders

MD/PhD student Erik Reinertsen is the first author on two papers in Physiological Measurement advancing this approach, working under the supervision of Gari Clifford, interim chair of Emory’s Department of Biomedical Informatics.

Clifford’s team has been evaluating heart rate variability and activity as a tool for monitoring both PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and schizophrenia. Clifford says his team’s research is expanding to look at treatment-resistant depression and other mental health issues.

For clinical applications, Clifford emphasizes that his plans focus on tracking disease severity for patients who are already diagnosed, rather than screening for new diagnoses. His team is involved in much larger studies in which heart rate data is being combined with physical activity data from smart watches, body patches, and clinical questionnaires, as well as other behavioral and exposure data collected through smartphone usage patterns.

Intuitively, heart rate variability makes sense for monitoring PTSD, because one of the core symptoms is hyperarousal, along with flashbacks and avoidance or numbness. However, it turns out that the time that provides the most information is when heart rate is lowest and study participants are most likely asleep, or at their lowest ebb during the night.

Home sleep tests generate a ton of information, which can be mined. This approach also fits into a trend for wearable medical technology, recently highlighted in STAT by Max Blau (subscription needed).

The research on PTSD monitoring grows out of work by cardiologists Amit Shah and Viola Vaccarino on heart rate variability in PTSD-discordant twin veterans (2013 Biological Psychiatry paper). Shah and Vaccarino had found that low frequency heart rate variability is much less (49 percent less) in the twin with PTSD. Genetics influences heart rate variability quite a bit, so studying twins allows those factors to be accounted for. Read more

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How race + TBI experience affect views of informed consent

The upcoming HBO movie of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us that biomedical research has a complex legacy, when it comes to informed consent and people of color.

A paper from Emory investigators, published in AJOB Empirical Bioethicstouches on related current issues. The paper examines how race and close experience with traumatic brain injury affect study participants’ views of informed consent in clinical research.

This emerged from a study of community consultation for EFIC (exception from informed consent), in connection with a nationwide clinical trial of progesterone for traumatic brain injury (TBI). EFIC describes clinical research performed when the normal process of obtaining patients’ informed consent is not possible, because of emergency conditions such as seizures or TBI. Before such studies can be undertaken, the FDA calls for protective procedures and community consultation.

In this case, researchers surveyed 2612 people at 12 sites involved in the TBI study. The survey asked about attitudes toward the EFIC aspects of the study and also asked if they had personal experience with traumatic brain injury – either themselves or someone close to them. How that personal connection affected their responses was influenced by race.

Key paragraph from discussion:

Among white participants, increased levels of acceptance of EFIC were found among those with any connections to TBI. On the other hand, among participants identifying as black or other nonwhite races, there was decreased acceptance of EFIC enrollment among TBI patients and no increase in acceptance among those with a family member/loved one with TBI. The fact that black and white participants with no personal TBI experience or with a more distant connection to TBI had similar acceptance rates suggests that baseline acceptance of EFIC among these two groups is fairly similar and that the experience with the condition itself plays a role in driving the observed differences…

Read more

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To explain cancer biology, use metaphors

Using metaphors to explain biomedical concepts is our bread and butter. That’s why we were tickled to see a recent paper from Winship Cancer Institute bioethicist Rebecca Pentz and colleagues, titled:

Using Metaphors to Explain Molecular Testing to Cancer Patients

Pentz’s team systematically evaluated something that science writers and journalists try to do all the time (and not always well). And they did so with actual conversations between doctors and patients at Winship. The first author of the paper, published in The Oncologist, was medical student Ana Pinheiro.

The researchers studied 66 conversations with nine oncologists. In 25 of those conversations, patients reported that they were able to hear a metaphor. Here’s one example:

“We try to figure out what food makes this kind of cancer grow. For this cancer, the food was estrogen and progesterone. So we’re going to focus on blocking the hormones, because that way we starve the cancer of its food.”

The paper lists all 17 (bus driver, boss, switch, battery, circuit, broken light switch, gas pedal, key turning off an engine, key opening a lock, food for growth, satellite and antenna, interstate, alternate circuit, traffic jam, blueprint, room names, Florida citrus) and how they were used to explain eight cancer-related molecular testing terms.

When patients were asked about the helpfulness of a metaphor that was used, 85 percent of the time they demonstrated understanding and said it was helpful. So let the metaphors fly!

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Three remarkable Emory case reports from #ACC17

The big news from the American College of Cardiology meeting today is about PCSK9 inhibitors, which were known to be effective at lowering LDL cholesterol, and how much they really prevent heart attacks and save lives.

Lab Land went looking off the beaten path for individual stories of Emory cardiologists saving lives and was pleased to find several. We highlight here three remarkable case reports that are being presented at the ACC meeting. We look forward to learning more about these cases.

Refractory electrical storm 

Electrical storm is life threatening and refers to a recurrent arrhythmia. The arrhythmia did not respond to drug treatment, so anesthesiologists were brought in to perform left stellate ganglion block, an injection of medication into a nerve bundle in the neck, allowing diagnosis and further treatment. It turns out the arrhythmia was caused by sarcoidosis, a rare intrusion of immune cells into the heart. [Saturday morning: Michael Lloyd, Boris Spektor]

Hormone-producing tumor + cardiomyopathy 

A 30-year old woman came to doctors with drastically impaired heart function, although she did not have a blockage of her coronary arteries or signs of damage to the heart muscle. Doctors discovered a tumor near her spine that was producing heart-distorting hormones such as epinephrine. She underwent surgery to remove the tumor. [Saturday afternoon: Stamatios Lerakis]

Giving birth unveils birth defects

Ten days after giving birth, a woman came to a hospital with chest pain. Upon cardiac catheterization, a rearrangement of her coronary arteries was discovered. It appears that the congenital defect had gone undetected until the stress of giving birth. Under medical treatment, she is asymptomatic, but she will need future monitoring and possibly a procedure to correct the artery problems. [Sunday morning: Camden Hebson]

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Excellent exosomes harvest cardiac regenerative capacity

Thanks to biomedical engineer Mike Davis for writing an explanation of “Exosomes: what do we love so much about them?” for Circulation Research, a companion to his lab’s November 2016 publication analyzing exosomes secreted by human cardiac progenitor cells.

We can think of exosomes as tiny packages that cells send each other. They’re secreted bubbles containing proteins and regulatory RNAs. Thus, they may be a way to harvest the regenerative capacity of pediatric heart tissue without delivering the cells themselves.

Mike Davis, PhD is director of the Children’s Heart Research and Outcomes Center (HeRO), part of the Emory/Children’s/Georgia Tech Pediatric Research Alliance

Davis’ lab studied cardiac tissue derived from children of different ages undergoing surgery for congenital heart defects. The scientists isolated exosomes from the cardiac progenitor cells, and tested their regenerative activity in rats with injured hearts.

They found that exosomes derived from older children’s cells were only reparative if they were subjected to hypoxic conditions (lack of oxygen), while exosomes from newborns’  cells improved rats’  cardiac function with or without hypoxia. Read more

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Direct reprogramming into endothelial cells

Direct reprogramming has become a trend in the regenerative medicine field. It means taking readily available cells, such as skin cells or blood cells, and converting them into cells that researchers want for therapeutic purposes, skipping the stem cell stage.

In a way, this approach follows in Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka’s footsteps, but it also tunnels under the mountain he climbed. Direct reprogramming has been achieved for target cell types such as neurons and insulin-producing beta cells.

Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD

In Circulation Research, Emory stem cell biologist Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD and colleagues recently reported converting human skin fibroblast cells into endothelial cells, which line and maintain the health of blood vessels.

Once reprogrammed, a patient’s own cells could potentially be used to treat conditions such as peripheral artery disease, or to form vascular grafts. Exactly how reprogrammed cells should be deployed clinically still needs to be worked out.

In cardiovascular disease, many clinical trials have been performed using bone marrow cells that were not reprogrammed. Emory readers may be familiar with studies conducted by Arshed Quyyumi, MD and colleagues, in which treatment was delivered after patients’ heart attacks. In those studies, sorted progenitor cells, some of which could become endothelial cells, were introduced into the heart. To provide the observed effects, the introduced cells were more likely supplying supportive growth factors.

In contrast, Yoon’s team is able to produce cells that already have endothelial character hammered into them. The authors have applied for a patent. The co-first authors were instructor Sang-Ho Lee, PhD and Changwon Park, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics. Read more

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Flow mediated dilation

On Friday, researchers from Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute demonstrated a test for how much blood vessels adjust to changes in blood flow. This test is known as “flow-mediated dilation” or FMD. A blood pressure measurement cuff is tightened on the arm for five minutes, restricting blood flow.

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ECCRI investigator Salman Sher, MD demonstrates flow-mediated dilation

When the cuff is released, blood flow increases, but how much the arm’s main artery expands depends on the endothelium – the lining of the artery — and its ability to respond to nitric oxide, which is induced by the increased flow. Researchers monitor the artery’s expansion by ultrasound.

ECCRI co-director Arshed Quyyumi and his colleagues at Emory have extensive experience using the FMD test. Impaired endothelial function is an early stage in the process of atherosclerosis.

The FMD test is relatively non-invasive, in that no catheter probe is necessary. However, practitioners need practice and careful study design to ensure accuracy, ECCRI investigator Salman Sher explained. Posture, time of day and whether the patient has eaten can all affect the results.

Lab Land asked Sher (seated in the photo) whether the effect was similar to the common experience of sleeping on an arm and having it turn numb, followed by “pins and needles” when the pressure is relieved. This feeling actually comes from nerve compression. Read more

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Emory clinical research highlights for #AHA16

Clinical research presentations at 2016 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions: telomeres + circulating progenitor cells, food deserts, and troponin as risk marker for atrial fibrillation.

 

Telomere Shortening, Regenerative Capacity, and Cardiovascular Outcomes Nov. 13, 4:45 pm, Room 346-347

Aging, in general, depletes our bodies’ regenerative capacities. Arshed Quyyumi, MD and colleagues at Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute have shown how circulating progenitor cells or CPCs, which regenerate blood vessels and correlate with outcomes in cardiovascular disease, are a finite resource.

Working with Quyyumi, research fellow Muhammad Hammadah, MD is presenting data on how telomere length interacts with the levels of CPCs, in a study of mental stress ischemia in 566 patients with stable coronary artery disease. Telomeres tend to shorten with ageing and cellular stress, and their length has been a widely studied biomarker.

Hammadah concludes that low leukocyte telomere length is associated with decreased regenerative capacity, independently of age and cardiovascular risk factors. However, telomere length and CPC levels are independent and additive predictors of adverse cardiovascular outcomes (such as death, heart attack, stroke, or hospitalization for heart failure), he finds. Hammadah is a finalist for the Elizabeth Barrett-Connor Research Award for Young Investigators in Training. Read more

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Emory basic research highlights for #AHA16

Basic research presentations at 2016 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions: cell therapy for heart attack (mesenchymal stem cells) in animal models and role of CD73, gradual release drug for atrial fibrillation, how particles from stored blood affects blood vessels.

Mesenchymal Stem Cells Require CD73 Activity to Reduce Leukocyte Associated Inflammation Following Myocardial Ischemia-Reperfusion Injury

Nov.13, 1:30 pm, Science and Technology Hall- Basic Science Theater

Cell therapy, using the patient’s own cells to reduce damage to the heart after a heart attack, has been a hot topic. Mesenchymal stem cells are derived from the bone marrow and can’t replace heart muscle. But they do exert anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects, Eric Shin, MD, Rebecca Levit, MD and colleagues show in a rat model of heart attack.

The researchers use the gel material alginate to encapsulate the cells, in a way previously described by Levit. They say this is the first study to demonstrate that mesenchymal stem cells reduce reactive oxygen species production in the heart. and that the molecule CD73, which degrades ATP/ADP into adenosine, is needed for the anti-inflammatory effect. CD73 is also a cancer immunotherapy target. Read more

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